Early Reading Strategy - Help for Children With Reading Difficulties

The Report of the Expert Panel on Early Reading in Ontario, 2003

Help for Children With Reading Difficulties

This report opens with a firm conviction: "A child's success in school and throughout life depends in large part on the ability to read. Educators in Ontario have the profound challenge of making reading a reality for all children."

Many young children experience some kind of difficulty learning to read. For many children, reading difficulties can be identified in Kindergarten or Grade 1 and can be prevented or substantially reduced, but often they are not. Research findings on early reading difficulties are very clear: children who continue to experience difficulties in Grade 3 seldom catch up in later grades. The consequences are well documented. These children are at risk of failing school and dropping out, and they may have limited career opportunities in adulthood. Therefore, it is important to have the conditions and resources – including time, manageable class size, materials, and learning opportunities – that enable teachers to meet the challenges of ensuring that all children learn to read.

The Nature of Reading Difficulties

The foundations of good reading are the same for all children. All readers, regardless of their age, gender, or aptitude, need to develop fluency, comprehension, and the motivation to read in order to become successful readers. Children who experience reading difficulties are no exception. They too must develop the basic foundations for reading, and they require the same types of learning experiences to do so.

Most young children with reading difficulties have problems developing fluency. For these children, identifying words takes a lot of effort. Their reading rate is slow, their word identification is hesitant, and they overrely on contextual cues for word identification. Because most of their cognitive or mental effort is spent trying to identify words, their comprehension suffers. The main prevention and early intervention strategies for these children are effective preparation for literacy and effective classroom instruction.

Preparation for Literacy

Research consistently points to the importance of children beginning their formal reading instruction with the skill and the will that will enable them to learn to read successfully. By the time children begin formal reading instruction, they should have a good understanding of the forms and formats of books and be able to identify and write the letters of the alphabet. They should have basic phonemic awareness, be interested in reading and stories, and see themselves as successful learners en route to reading excellence. Some children enter school with such knowledge and attitudes already well developed, but many do not. Participation in developmentally appropriate preschool programs has been shown to improve children's ability to learn to read, especially children from at-risk groups. Kindergarten preparation in literacy is also strongly related to children's success when learning to read. A major step in preventing early reading difficulties is to ensure that an effective Kindergarten reading program is available to all children in Ontario. Such a program provides opportunities for children to listen to stories, poems, and non-fiction materials for enjoyment and information, respond to a variety of materials that are read aloud to them, retell stories in their own words, and demonstrate awareness of written materials, the features of books, and language patterns.

Early Identification and Intervention

Even with effective classroom instruction, some children will need additional supports or interventions. However, teachers should consider supplemental interventions only when effective and adapted instruction has failed to resolve a child's reading difficulties.

Effective intervention requires that teachers recognize as early as possible those children who are experiencing reading difficulties, tailor instruction to address their needs, and provide for supplementary instruction when necessary. If adequate screening and assessment procedures are in place, early intervention may begin even before formal instruction in reading. Interventions that are begun when children are very young have a much better chance of success than interventions begun later.

Interventions begun at Grade 3 are much less likely to succeed than early interventions. It is essential to identify reading difficulties by Grade 1 and to put appropriate supplemental interventions in place immediately. In this way, reading problems can be tackled before they become entrenched and before repeated failures affect children's motivation and compound their difficulties in learning to read and write.

Implementation Process

By Grade 1, all schools should have in place for children a process that allows for the timely implementation of instruction following diagnostic assessment. Once a teacher recognizes that a child is experiencing reading difficulties, the teacher and the child must have access to diagnostic assessment services, specialized interventions, and appropriate instruction. The intensity or duration of the interventions should be based on comprehensive diagnostic assessment. There should be seamless continuity between regular classroom instruction and interventions, and a high degree of cooperation among qualified staff who are serving the same children. The staff should spend the vast majority of their time planning for and delivering instruction directly to children.

Characteristics of Successful Interventions

No one intervention works for all children with reading difficulties. However, interventions that succeed for many children have several characteristics in common. Typically they involve more instructional time for children, but extra time is not enough. Other characteristics include:

  • carefully planned assessments that allow for continual monitoring of the child's response and lead to modifications of the intervention when indicated

  • teaching methods that are supported by research on how children learn to read and how they should be taught

  • considerable attention to the materials used (e.g., predictable, patterned, easy-to-more-difficult texts), with a focus on interesting and enjoyable texts at appropriate reading levels

  • an array of activities (e.g., word study, reading, rereading, and writing)

Successful interventions generally occur on a daily basis and may occur in focused, short blocks of time, or in longer blocks, with appropriate accommodations in classroom instruction.

Successful interventions are strongly linked with regular classroom instruction, are supported by sound research, reflect an understanding of effective reading instruction (section 3), and are culturally and linguistically appropriate for the individual child. It is critical that interventions be measured against these criteria, and that their effectiveness in helping children with reading difficulties be carefully assessed and monitored.

Children at Risk of Reading Difficulties

Children from certain socio-economic, cultural, or linguistic backgrounds may be more likely statistically to experience reading difficulties. Some researchers refer to these as "at-risk" or "high-risk" groups.

Association with a group that has a statistically higher rate of reading failure has little or nothing to do with a child's ability to learn. There are many reasons why classroom instruction may not be meeting the child's needs. For example, many Aboriginal children in remote areas of the province enter school speaking only their first language, and others in urban areas come speaking an English dialect. Instruction may not adequately build upon the literacy, language, and culture that some children bring to school.

In schools where there is a demonstrated high proportion of children who are at risk of reading difficulties, qualified staff and material resources must be available both in the classroom and through support programs. Resources should be distributed equitably to inner city, rural, and remote areas. Efforts in these schools should first focus on supporting the improvement of existing instructional practices, then on implementing additional interventions. In many cases, school-wide efforts at restructuring that integrate organizational issues with coherent, effective classroom instruction have been shown to be more effective than simply adding on new intervention strategies.

It is important for teachers to realize that, with effective instruction, all children can learn to read. It is the school's responsibility to provide for each child the appropriate level of support to reach his or her potential in reading. There must be clear continuity between regular classroom instruction and any interventions provided by support personnel. Interventions will not differ in kind from effective regular classroom instruction, but will differ in frequency, intensity, and focus.

Literacy Teamwork

The classroom teacher should plan appropriate interventions in consultation with other professionals who have expertise in assessment and intervention in reading and related areas (e.g., literacy specialists, speech and language specialists, and audiologists).

Classroom teachers must be given the resources to match their responsibilities. All schools must have appropriate access to a team with specialized expertise in reading intervention.

For French-language schools in some parts of Ontario, and for schools in remote areas, it can be difficult to provide highly specialized service, because the area to be served is so vast. In these situations, technology can be used to link primary teachers to one another (forming a virtual literacy team) and to deliver specialized expertise across long distances to children and teachers. However, it must be noted that the costs for technology solutions are substantially higher in the north than in southern Ontario.

Research findings are clear that, while volunteers may be helpful in implementing supplemental instruction and supports, professionals with the required expertise are essential for the design and delivery of successful interventions. It is the teacher who should teach children how to read.

Professional Development

All teachers in the primary grades need to be well qualified and have opportunities for ongoing professional learning. Teaching reading to young children requires a highly specialized body of knowledge and expertise. The same knowledge and expertise that a teacher uses to help a child who is progressing well in reading will help a child who is struggling. Teachers who are equipped with the broad repertoire of assessment and instructional strategies described earlier in this report are well positioned to identify children with reading difficulties, focus their instruction on individual children's needs, and identify and plan for children whose reading difficulties are severe enough to require specific instruction and support. To stay abreast of new and emerging literacy developments, teachers can consult with local university-based researchers.

So that effective classroom practices that support early identification and intervention might be encouraged, professional development must be available for teachers in Kindergarten to Grade 3 and beyond, with a focus on:

  • maintaining high expectations for children with reading difficulties
  • understanding the nature of reading difficulties and the impact on achievement
  • understanding and applying interventions and other modifications
  • helping children to capitalize on early gains

Beyond Early Intervention

Effective early identification and intervention will help prevent and significantly decrease reading difficulties for many young children and improve their prospects for school success. However, even exemplary early intervention practices will not guarantee that severe reading difficulties are overcome. Some children will continue to need additional reading instruction and supports to succeed in the later school grades.

As these children grow older and literacy increasingly becomes a vehicle for teaching, learning, and evaluation, instructional and other supports that address their changing needs must be in place.